Nuns Navigating the Spanish Empire

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Sarah E. Owens
Diálogos Series
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico: 
    University of New Mexico Press
    , November
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The lives and piety of early modern women religious are rarely accessible to us, both due to the lack of sources and the persistent neglect of extant sources by scholars. Nuns Navigating the Spanish Empire is a nicely accomplished addition to a growing pool of scholarship attempting to change this. Sarah Owens provides a detailed look into the religious practice and formation of a 17th century group of Spanish nuns by tracing their extraordinary journey through the Atlantic and Pacific world. In 1620, Sor Jerónima de la Asunción, along with nine other sisters, embarked on a fifteen month journey from Toledo, Spain to Manila in the Philippines to found the first female Franciscan convent in the Far East. Owens’s research largely draws from an extensive manuscript written by Sor Jerónima’s travel companion and later abbess of the Manila convent, Sor Ana de Cristo. This remarkable source––a combination of Sor Jerónima’s hagiography and travel narrative––along with correspondence and clerical records– builds the archive that allows Owens to tell this adventurous story. Despite the difficulties that come along with using hagiographies as primary sources of biographies, Owens skillfully and critically teases out the life of Sor Jerónima behind the saint-to-be, as well as presenting snippets of the lives of the sisters that surround her. While most of her work focuses on the sisters, their narrative functions as a gateway into imperial religious politics, as well as into various cultures and people that the sisters encounter on their way to Manila. This perspective keeps Owens from the pitfall of romanticizing these nuns. In bringing to the forefront the women’s engagement with non-European cultures and people as well as their roles in the history of Spanish colonization, she takes seriously their biases and ideologies as agents of and in the Spanish Empire in their quest to bring Catholic Christianity and female convent life to the Philippines.

The first chapter follows the sisters from Toledo to the Spanish port city of Cádiz, highlighting both religious and artistic practice in Spanish female monasticism, as well as their Spanish elite royal connections and support for their ambition to move to Manila. Chapter 2 traces the sisters’ transatlantic naval journey from Spain to Veracruz and their subsequent travels through Mexico to the Pacific coast in Acapulco. The first two chapters offer valuable insight into the religious practice of these nuns. Some of the highlights are an analysis of Sor Jerónima’smystical encounter with the infant Jesus during a feast of Corpus Christi procession in Seville, as well as Sor Ana’s never-before-studied account of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which adds a rare female monastic perspective on one of the most significant early modern Catholic shrines. In Mexico, the reader learns of the nuns’ interactions with the indigenous population and their attitude towards these people as conquered subjects of the Catholic Spanish empire. These encounters continue in the following chapter, tracing the last and longest part of their journey on a Manila galleon across the Pacific to Luzon and from the coast to Manila carried on the backs of native Filipino people. Sor Ana’s fascinating accounts of the ship journey present the rough life at sea, characterized by sickness and encounters with seamen and slaves, but also the nuns’ attempt to continue their holy life of isolation from immoral worldliness as they established a provisory female convent life in their cabin on the boat. Chapter 4 describes the early days of the new convent in Manila, when the sisters were challenged by male elites regarding how to run the convent, which sheds light on Sor Ana’s rise and service as abbess of the convent. In the final chapter, Owens continues to concentrate on Sor Ana,shifting the focus from the well-known Sor Jerónima and elevating the transformation of her hagiographer. Through placing Ana within a network and tradition of Spanish women religious authors, she summarizes her developmentfrom a non-privileged and barely literate sister in Spain to her rise as an abbess and female writer in the Philippines. Here, Owens does a remarkable job of highlighting the significant role of writing in constituting a sense of religious self and agency for early modern women religious.

Overall, Owens’s work is a wonderful interdisciplinary achievement. The spatial dimension of her inquiry transcends the often used boundaries of the Pacific and the Atlantic worlds, whose connections are often not considered in the scholarship of this period. Owens is not primarily a scholar of religious history, and yet she successfully makes the nun’s piety an integral part of her historical and literary analysis. While Owens focuses heavily on the nuns’ collective form of agency in negotiating their place in the Spanish empire, her project unfortunately rarely touches upon the dynamics and relationships within the group of the sisters. Additionally, she repeatedly asserts that the sisters’ journey as women offers a unique “gendered perspective” of their world. However, Owens could have nuanced more of what she means by “gendered” and how the experience of a privileged and guarded group of celibate monastic women might have differed from other females in this period and space. That being said, Nuns Navigating the Spanish Empire is a beautifully written, well argued, and rigorously researched microhistory that will interest scholars of the early modern Atlantic world, especially the Spanish empire, as well as those interested in early modern religious history, women religious, and women’s and gender studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ann-Catherine Wilkening is master of arts candidate in Religion, with a focus on the History of Christianity, at Yale Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sarah E. Owens is a professor of Spanish at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. She is the editor and translator of Journey of Five Capuchin Nuns and the coeditor of Women of the Iberian Atlantic.


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